The Beautiful Onion

February 25th, 2014 Sections: Plants
Allium spathulatum, a close relative to the newly discovered species of Wild Onion. Photo: Georgy Lazkov

Allium spathulatum, a close relative to the newly discovered species of Wild Onion. Photo: Georgy Lazkov

The other day I came across an article on the BBC website about Onionomics: the importance of the Onion to Indian cuisine … well, not just cuisine but to society as a whole – and not just the farmers responsible for growing the 16 million tonnes of the crop each year … as the author of another article in the New York Times put it: “when the cost of onions goes up, governments can come down” – “onions are indispensable, while politicians can be replaced”.

The trouble is that Indian cuisine uses the onion in a variety of formats: fried, pureed or sautéed or  raw (in salads), as a garnish or a dip, and so on …  it’s a vital ingredient in virtually every dish … and hence in very great demand.  Likewise, onions are also very susceptible to price fluctuations and the vagaries of the weather.  If there’s a bumper harvest then there is a glut of onions and the price falls, harming the farmers who depend on it as a cash crop, but if there is a shortage, (as there was in 2010), then the price rockets, hitting the consumers, and there’s a risk of social upheaval.

Back in 2010, the government was forced to ban the export of Onions and import instead.  Apparently, they imported quite a few from Kyrgyzstan … but they weren’t happy.  The Kyrgyz onions tend to smaller and sweeter than what they are used to and although it filled the gap, there was no real chance that it was going to be the beginning of a long lasting relationship between the two countries.

The article reminded me of a story which broke last April … the discovery in Kyrgyzstan of a new species of onion: Allium formosum – the Beautiful Onion.

Every now and again we see a news item about new species being discovered … or the sighting of an old one that was thought to have disappeared: a fish dragged up from the ocean depths, a butterfly or insect … and so on.  It’s always interesting to see these when they are reported in National Geographic or somewhere, and we’ve been lucky enough to have a few similar discoveries here in Kyrgyzstan over the years.

Of course, it nothing like the discoveries made by the likes of Semenov or Fedchenko, but it is still quite impressive how every now and again something new comes to light.  In this case it was an onion.


Onions are a biennial or perennial vegetable plant although when cultivated is usually treated as an annual and harvested after its first season.  They usual have hollow greenish leaves which grow from a bulb at the base of the plant,  In the autumn, the leaves die down and the outer layers of the bulb become dry and brittle.    The bulb can be harvested and dried to extend the time for which it can be stored … but in India, very few are actually processed and most are consumed raw.  It seems that this leads to a certain amount of wastage which is another factor which affects its price.

Some species produce a single bulb bit others produce a multiple bulbs.  According to one gardening expert, pointed bulbs rather than spherical ones tend to put on a spurt of growth and “go to seed” early, before the bulbs are ready to harvest.

They are pungent when cut and contain chemicals which can irritate the eyes … so when I use onions, I tend to put them under the tap first in order to minimize any spray that can be spurted out when they are cut.

They’ve been around for a long time and even make an appearance in the Bible.  Indeed there is some evidence to suggest that in some cultures they may have had special ritual or symbolic importance.  There is also evidence that they were considered to have particularly health giving properties and were prescribed as part of various medical treatments.

They are easy to grow and store as well as being extremely versatile as a food stuff.

There are several species of wild onion, (allium cepa), many of which are endemic to Kyrgyzstan, but they tend to be small and grow at high altitudes.  One source, published in 1951, suggests that there were at that time dome 67 separate species … and another published in 2011 identified 85.

For example, to mention just a few … there’s the

  • Allium Saposhnikovii E. Nikkit, found at relatively low altitudes, (up to about 1500m), with stems that reach anywhere between 35 and 90cm tall, topped with a white flower, and is endemic to Kyrgyzstan found in the Kyrgyz range,
  • Allium Barsczewskii Lapsky, which grows at altitudes up to about 2200m, throughout the country, (the Central Tien Shan, Alai, Chatkal Ferghana and Kyrzyz ranges), with stems that can reach anywhere between 20 and 70cm long, topped with a maroon flower;
  • Allium Fetisowli Regel,  found at altitudes up to about 2200m, in the Kyrzyz and Talas Ala Too ranges of Northern Kyrgyzstan, with stems that can reach anywhere between 40 and 70cm long, topped with a pink or maroon flower;
  • Allium Oreophilum C.A. Mey, which gross at higher altitudes, (up to about 3500m), throughout the country, (the Central Tien Shan, Alai, Ferghana,  Kyrzyz and Talas Ala Too ranges), with relative shot stems ranging from 5 to 20cm topped with marron flowers.
  • Allium semenowii Regel, which is found at higher altitudes, (up to about 3500m above sea level),  with stems that can grow to between 10 and 40cm, topped with yellow flowers with a an orange tint at the leaftips.  It was added to the Red Data Book of Kyrgyzstan in 2005 as an endangered species.
  • Allium pskemense B. Fedtsch, which is grown as an ornamental plant which favours dry places such as rock gardens with stems that can grow to anywhere between 40 and 100cm topped with a spherical white flower.  It was added to the Red Data Book of Kyrgyzstan in 2005 as an endangered species.

Then, last year, there was the announcement of the discovery of a new species of onion, Allium Formosum Sennikov and Lazkov, (for the two botanists who made the discovery).   It was found in the Sary Chelek Reserve, and is considered to be endemic to the Badash Ata range of mountains (in the East of the Ferghana Valley) in the valley of the Kara Kol River.

The stems are quite short, 20 to 30cm long, topped with pinkish-purple flowers which appear in July.  The name of the new species is derived from the Latin word for ‘beautiful’ (formosum) because of its elegant habit and beautiful colouration of the flower, transitional between deeply pink and purple.

Apparently it is part of a family of onions  with over 250 related species or subspecies …  a rapidly growing family, it seems, because more species are coming to light as more of the remote mountain areas are explored.  A similar species, Allium Spathulathum, was discovered in the same region, but the other side of the main Bishkek Osh highway, in 1998.  In fact, the base of the discovery was situated near to the headquarters of the nature reserve, near the village of Arkit … so it may be a little surprising that it wasn’t noticed before.  This is in the low alpine zone – up to an altitude of about 1700m above sea level. They appear to grow in clusters.

It has been recommended for inclusion in the Red Data Book of Kyrgyzstan as an endangered species because of the very small population size, (maybe as few as 250 specimens), and the fact that it seems to be restricted to a single location.




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